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Movie Reviews : Not Even Christmas Can the Save New 'Ernest'

November 15, 1988|MICHAEL WILMINGTON

Ah, TV commercials! They coerce you into buying junk you don't want. They elect governors and Presidents whom you may want even less. And they've made a superstar out of Jim Varney's Ernest P. Worrell, the rampaging motormouth buttinsky who keeps barging into neighbor Vern's apartment and blabbering away, leering like a buzzard in heat and yowling "Ya know what I mean?"

The latest feature-length dose of Ernest directed by John Cherry, who made both the commercials and 1987's appalling hit "Ernest Goes to Camp," is "Ernest Saves Christmas" (citywide). Cherry and Varney's comedy often suggests Jerry Lewis filtered through "Hee Haw" and smothered in corn. But when this one begins, you almost breathe a sigh of relief.

Ah, Christmas, season of charity and joy! Perhaps it hath charms to soothe the savage Ernest, or at least get him to mug a little less. The vintage Saturday Evening Post-style credits are charming. And the movie's Santa, shown here traveling to Orlando, Fla., to appoint his substitute, is played by Douglas Seale in the sweet, whimsical, aristocratic key Edmund Gwenn used for "Miracle on 34th Street."

Then Ernest appears, as an insanely destructive cabdriver, also a master of disguise and a self-deluding nitwit. He smashes into luggage, rams Christmas trees into his own window and reduces his rider to catatonia. He babbles and leers, pays a call on the unseen Vern and wrecks his home, then manages to lose Santa's sack.

Can Christmas be saved from this demented chaos, climaxing with the maniacally incompetent Ernest driving Santa's sleigh? (He keeps miscalling lead deer Blitzen "Blister.") Can John Cherry and Jim Varney mute their frenzied fish-eye lens slapstick down from a dull roar?

"Ernest Saves Christmas" (MPAA-rated PG) is an improvement on "Ernest Goes to Camp," mostly because of Seale. But basically it's another TV ad, a chestnut roasting on an open fire, exploding in your face every so often with another "Ya know what I mean?"

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